Tonight's Israeli newspapers are touting President Obama's promise to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. will press for “direct” talks between Israel and the Palestinians as soon as possible instead of the indirect “proximity” talks now underway.
This is supposedly a victory for Netanyahu, who in news stories leading up to today's White House summit was portrayed as putting direct talks at the top of his Washington wish list, but I wonder; is that what he really wants?
Netanyahu, according to his supporters, can't possibly move further than he's moved on the road to a negotiated settlement because he can't make compromises on issues like Jerusalem without blowing his fragile government to Kingdom Come.
What are they going to talk about in the “direct talks” he's been pushing for? Procedures for talking? The shape of the table?
It was all smiles at the White House today, but aren't we heading for a new round of U.S.-Israeli uncertainty as the U.S. presses for direct talks dealing with the contentious “final status” issues like Jerusalem while Netanyahu has something else in mind?
But maybe Bibi is outsmarting them all. A diplomat I interviewed today had an interesting take; Netanyahu, he said, is the only player in the Israel-Palestinian-US nexus who knows exactly what he wants.
He wants to keep his government together, and not make concessions to the Palestinians that would cause it to fall; he wants to show he can effectively manage U.S.-Israel relations and stand up to a president in Washington while still getting along with him.
And once again he's outsmarted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who insists on indirect talks that everybody knows aren't going anyplace, and Netanyahu did it without specifying exactly what the direct talks he wants would talk about.
Abbas seems to want what he's always wanted: to get Washington to do what he's unwilling or unable to do in negotiations. It would be interesting to be a mind reader and see exactly how he thinks he's going to get to Palestinian statehood with his vacillating, terrified approach.
President Obama – I can't figure out exactly what he wants. Does he still think time is running out on a two-state solution and he's the last man standing who can help bring it about? Or does he just want to calm down the Jews in advance of the midterm congressional elections? Does he think his proximity talks are working? Does he have a U.S. peace plan ready on the shelf, or has he given that idea up? I don't have a clue, and his recent actions don't tell us very much.
We'll learn a lot more in the next few days about what happened behind closed doors at the White House, but it will be hard to separate fact from the spin both sides will put out in an effort to shape news coverage.
And no doubt we'll be reading anonymous emails from the right about how Netanyahu was really forced to sit in the corner of the Oval Office with a dunce cap on his head, and from the left on how Obama was played for a chump by the Israeli leader.
But at this point, it looks like a modest victory for Netanyahu. And it's hard to see how this week's meeting advanced President Obama's plans, whatever they may be.
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